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Fifty Fathoms Anniversary Act II: the Tech Gombessa

Although there are still some who debate the point, much evidence suggests that the first watch to check the requisite boxes for scuba diving (rotating bezel, luminous material, automatic winding and, obviously, significant water resistance) was the Fifty Fathoms introduced by Blancpain in 1953. This year marks the 70th anniversary for the watch and we’ve already seen “Act I” of a commemorative sequence of watches. In early February, a limited series of 210 watches with special dial marks (reading “70th Anniversary” and the series number of the watch) was introduced, 42mm in size.

Panelists at the Blancpain preview event earlier this week.
Earlier this week, I joined a number of guests at the Blancpain boutique in Manhattan for a preview of the Fifty Fathoms “Act II.” The event was truly global, with participants “tuning in” to a live stream featuring five hosts. Marc Hayek (Blancpain CEO and President) and Marc Junod (VP and Director of Sales) broadcast from Switzerland while Jason Heaton (writer and diver), Laurent Balessa (Gombessa Foundation Founder and Leader) and Tatiana Boube (Mokarran Protection Society Science Coordinator) joined in from Rangiroa, French Polynesia. This last location looked, frankly, like a tropical heaven on Earth.

By way of watches, I didn’t know what to expect from the gathering. The invitation card featured the partial arc of a dive watch bezel but the markings were truly baffling.
A teaser graphic sent by Blancpain ahead of the event.
At the spot usually reserved for a 10 minute elapsed time marker, there was a 30. At what is traditionally the 50 minute marker, there was a 2:30. I guessed that this was, potentially, some indicator for a chronograph counter that ran at a different frequency than usual. This guess, it turns out, was somewhat close but also quite inaccurate. I’ll return to this in a bit.

Before getting into the specifics of the watch release, let’s revisit the “origin story” of the Fifty Fathoms. As captivatingly told by Jeff Kingston in a legendary HSNY lecture, in the very earliest days of scuba diving, Blancpain CEO Jean-Jacques Fiechter ran out of air while submerged in the Mediterranean. This spurred him to design a watch he could dive with that would reliably help any wearer track elapsed time.

In the modern era, Blancpain is still actively involved with the diving and marine science community in a variety of ways.
Details of the Ocean Commitment work with Great Hammerhead Sharks (on display at preview event).
In particular, through its Ocean Commitment program, Blancpain has sponsored at least five Gombassa Expeditions featuring technical, scientific and artistic goals achieved alongside highly technical ocean diving. The lead in these expeditions is Laurent Ballesta, an expert diver and photographer. What was particularly interesting about the Fifty Fathoms watch officially released by Blancpain today and previewed on Monday was that Ballesta’s participation in development of the watch echoed the origin story of the Fifty Fathoms itself.

More specifically, as a consequence of his dive experiences, Ballesta realized there was a function that was missing from timekeepers. In this case, the function is unique to modern, technical diving. But the method for developing a solution was quite similar to Fiechter’s own approach in the 1950s. Diving activity provided the parameters of what a watch should deliver and watchmakers spent a fair bit of time working out how to deliver that function. According to Ballesta, it took five years for Blancpain to onboard a new checkbox for a dive watch and deliver it to market with the box checked off. So, let’s talk a bit more about the watch.

The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms 70th Anniversary Tech Gombessa

My first good look at the Blancpain 70th Anniversary Tech Gombessa
The watch released today is the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms 70th Anniversary Tech Gombessa. The Fifty Fathoms hallmarks are all there in the timepiece. Arabic hour markers sit at 12, 3, 6 and 9. The diamond lume pip lives inside a curved unidirectional bezel. The script marking “Fifty Fathoms” is located at 6 o’clock on the dial.

A few new features jump out, though. The first of these is Blancpain’s choice of an orange hue for the hour and minute markers on the dial. This color carries through to the hour and minute hands as well as the word “Tech” presented just above the 6 o’clock marker. My guess is that these watches will be very well received in The Netherlands, where orange is the national color. If this is intentional, it is a wise choice. According to FH export statistics, The Netherlands was the 14th largest importer for Swiss watches. The country also punches above its weight: adjusted for population, it is the 10th most important market for Swiss watches.

The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Speed Command in orange. Photo credit Phillips Auctions.
The avid Blancpain collector will note that the Tech’s dial furniture color is reminiscent of certain references from the aughts. In particular, the Fifty Fathoms Flyback Chronograph Speed Command (reference 5785F-11D03-63A 578511d0363a) has a similar orange flair. Other references from this period also featured bold coloring in dial elements, such as the L-evolution series.

The most unique feature, by far, is the watch’s fourth hand, which the brand refers to as a “three hour” hand.
A graphical display of the Fifty Fathoms Gombessa Tech. Note the 3 hour hand pointed just short of the five o'clock marker. In this case, if the wearer were timing an event that started when the 3 hour hand was pointed at 12, almost one hour and fifteen minutes would have elapsed.
Here, we see the influence of Laurent Ballesta in the design of the watch. Ballesta and his crew of divers use “closed circuit” systems while submerged. These employ chemicals to remove carbon dioxide from exhaled air and inject oxygen to replace any that is lost to metabolism. As a result, they do not create any bubbles which, in turn, offers advantages for observing wildlife. Ballesta shared that tracking three hours of elapsed time is particularly useful for diving with rebreathers since that is the envelope typically recommended for the closed loop system he uses. He also noted that, after three hours, exhaustion and cold begin to set in and it is usually time to end a dive. This is the major new complication in the Tech Gombessa watch. The three hour hand is geared to the minute hand, but it only completes a full rotation after three hours. In order to track a long event, you rotate the bezel so that the diamond pip aligns with the three hour hand. If you want to know how much time has elapsed, you simply read off the mark on the bezel that the three hour hand points to. This solved the mystery of the “30” and “2:30” markers on the bezel that I described earlier. The scale on the Tech Gombessa bezel differs from incumbent designs because the relevant hand does not complete a full rotation in one hour.

Although this new complication is handy for technical diving, it is also helpful for timing any event lasting three hours or less. The list of possible events is long, but examples include a movie (except for the longest) and, in my case, my classes (which are typically not more than two hours).
A wristshot of me wearing the Fifty Fathoms Gombessa Tech.
The three hour timing function may also be useful for flights which are on the shorter end. Also worth emphasizing is the Tech Gombessa’ integrated rubber strap and lugless design (the strap is affixed to the wrist with a traditional buckle and tang system). In some ways, the Tech’s strap system reminds me of vintage “disco volante” designs in which the strap can come closer to a closed loop because it isn’t limited by the length of the case. Now, I’ve made my own fair share of jokes about the hackneyed “it wears smaller” claim. But I’m really being honest here: this design works and makes the 47mm watch wearable. I recently purchased a surplus milspec “SOPMOD2” digital quartz watch which is quite oversized compared to your standard Casio. My watch is only 4mm larger than the Tech Gombessa, but the lugless design of Blancpain’s offering makes it feel like my SOPMOD2 is approaching 60mm in comparison. Take a peek at the wrist shot here, you can judge yourself. The use of titanium for the case also helps with wearability by reducing the heft of the timepiece.

Just a few additional items of note when it comes to the Tech Gombessa.
The Gombessa Tech's movement and skeletonized rotor, as seen through the display caseback
First, there is no date window (a complication that many would rather not have on a dive watch anyway). The display caseback provides visual access to the movement, which features a skeletonized rotor emblazoned with the Gombessa Foundation’s iconography. There is a helium escape valve near 10 o’clock. Three barrels in the movement supply a lengthy five day power reserve. Luminous material provides legibility in low light conditions. For price, we heard the watch was available at CHF 26,300 with VAT included.

Wrapping Up

The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms 70th Anniversary Tech Gombessa celebrates Blancpain's tradition of molding dive watch design in response to real-world diving experiences. In this case, it was the needs of closed circuit diving which inspired the addition of a new three hour hand complication. Interestingly, another recent release of the Fifty Fathoms was also inspired by closed circuit diving. Blancpain’s 2019 Nageurs de Combat Automatique, released in celebration of French Navy combat divers, features a barely perceptible black “7” numeral printed on the dial just above the six o’clock position. Covert military divers often use pure oxygen rebreathers, but these systems are not safe at a depth greater than 7 meters. This explains the decorative element on the Nageurs de Combat.

We see, then, a theme developing when it comes to the evolution of the Fifty Fathoms. Divers are now regularly pushing the frontier of the kit they use in order to achieve different goals and objectives underwater. In response, Blancpain has synchronized the development of the Fifty Fathoms with the emergent needs of the dive community. The Fifty Fathoms 70th Anniversary Tech Gombessa is the latest, but not likely the last, example of this design strategy.
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